Comparing Chernobyl and Fukushima





Matthew Penney is an Assistant Professor at Concordia University in Montreal and a Japan Focus associate. He is currently conducting research on popular representations of war in Japan. He can be contacted at penneym@hotmail.com.

Mark Selden is a coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Journal and Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University. His recent books include Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance; China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and historical perspectives, The Resurgence of East Asia: 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives, and War and State Terrorism: The United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century. His homepage is www.markselden.info.

This is an excerpt of a longer article reprinted with the kind permission of Mark Selden and Japan Focus.

On April 12, 2011 the Japanese government officially announced that the severity of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster had reached level 7, the highest on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  Before Fukushima, the only level 7 case was the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, whose twenty-fifth anniversary was marked on April 26.  Two and a half months after the 3/11 catastrophe, the first to affect multiple reactors, TEPCO and the Japanese government continue to struggle to bring the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi under control.  TEPCO estimates that the problems could be solved in six to nine months now appearing extraordinarily optimistic and plans have been announced to close nuclear power plants deemed of particularly high risk such as the Hamaoka facility. 

Following the upgrade to level 7, Japan’s Prime Minister’s Office released a statement comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl.

The Japanese government argues that apart from children who contracted thyroid cancer from drinking contaminated milk, there have been no health effects among ordinary citizens as a result of Chernobyl radiation.  Is this really the case?  Given the Japanese government’s precautions against thyroid cancer in children, is there reason to believe that the Fukushima accident will take no lives except those exposed to the highest dangers in the plant clean-up?

On April 15, Kyodo, Japan’s major news service, ran an English language piece by Russian scientist Alexey V. Yablokov.  Yablokov’s stern warnings about the threat of even low levels of radiation had been ignored by the major media but were reported in Japanese in the Nishi Nippon Shimbun.

The English-only Kyodo piece, however, ties Yablokov’s extensive Chernobyl research with the unfolding Fukushima crisis.  Under the headline “How to minimize consequences of the Fukushima catastrophe,” Yablokov observed that

The analysis of the health impact of radioactive land contamination by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, made by Professor Chris Busby (the European Committee of Radiation Risk) based on official Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology data, has shown that over the next fifty years it would be possible to have around 400,000 additional cancer patients within a 200-kilometer radius of the plant.

This number can be lower and can be even higher, depending on strategies to minimize the consequences.  Underestimation is more dangerous for the people and for the country than overestimation.

    Based on the Chernobyl experience, he made the following recommendations:

    1. Enlarge the exclusion zone [from 20 kilometers] to at least about a 50-km radius of the plant;

    2. Distribute detailed instructions on effective ways to protect the health of individuals while avoiding the additional contamination of food.  Organize regular measurements of all people by individual dose counters (for overall radionuclides) at least once a week.  Distribute radioprotectors and decontaminants (substances which provide the body protection against harmful effects of radiation) of radionuclides…

    3. Develop recommendations for safe agriculture on the contaminated territories:  reprocessing of milk, decontamination of meat, turning agriculture into production of technical cultures (e.g. biofuels etc.).  Such ''radionuclide-resistant'' agriculture will be costly (it may be up to 30-40 percent compared with conventional agriculture) and needs to be subsidized;

    4. It is necessary to urgently improve existing medical centers—and possibly create new ones—to deal with the immediate and long-term consequences of the irradiated peoples (including medical-genetic consultations on the basis of chromosome analysis etc.);

    5. The most effective way to help organize post-Fukushima life in the contaminated territories (from Chernobyl lessons) is to create a special powerful interagency state body (ministry or committee) to handle the problems of contaminated territories during the first most complicated years.

      Yablokov is one of the primary architects of the 2006 Greenpeace report “The Chernobyl Catastrophe: Consequences on Human Health” and an extensive 2010 follow-up study Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment published by the New York Academy of Sciences, which makes the startling claim that 985,000 deaths can be attributed to the 1986 disaster.

      This claim is startling because it differs so dramatically from a 600 page 2005 study by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the WHO, and the UN Development Programme, which claimed that fewer than 50 deaths can be attributed directly to Chernobyl and fewer than 4000 likely from Chernobyl-related cancers in the future. Indeed, the two works continue to frame much of the public controversy, with little progress toward resolution. Attempts to assess the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster remain the subject of fierce debate over widely different estimates in both the scientific and policy communities. In the months since the Fukushima disaster, scores of reports have uncritically passed on the results of the IAEA/WHO or the Yablokov study published by the New York Academy of Sciences without seriously engaging the conflicting conclusions or moving the debate forward. Here we present the major findings of major studies across the divide that may help to clarify the likely outcomes of the Fukushima disaster.

      Yablokov and colleagues assessed thousands of studies of the localities and people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in Russian and other Eastern European languages. They argue that these studies have been ignored by the Anglophone scientific community….

      In recent weeks, the issue of radiation and the 300,000 children of Fukushima has moved to the center of debate in assessing Japanese government handling of the Fukushima meltdown, even as the seriousness of radiation issues has grown with the belated disclosure by TEPCO of the multiple disasters experienced at the outset, and still far from under control, in Fukushima Daiichi.

      On April 28, Kosako Toshiso, a radiation specialist at Tokyo University, resigned his position as Special Advisor to the Cabinet.  Kosako had earlier gained notoriety for his role in helping to deny the extension of benefits to some radiation victims of the atomic bombs in a 2003 court case.  After Fukushima, however, Kosako made an impassioned and courageous stand against what he saw as a government taking the potential health effects of long-term radiation exposure too lightly.  In a press conference, Kosako castigated the Kan cabinet for its decision to increase permissible radiation exposure for Fukushima children....

      On April 29, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War appealed to the Japanese government to recognize the risk that students of Fukushima would be exposed to, citing widely accepted scientific principles for radiation effects:

      The U.S. National Academy of Sciences BEIR VII report estimates that each 1 mSv of radiation is associated with an increased risk of solid cancer (cancers other than leukemia) of about 1 in 10,000; an increased risk of leukemia of about 1 in 100,000; and a 1 in 17,500 increased risk of dying from cancer. But a critical factor is that not everyone faces the same level of risk. For infants (under 1 year of age) the radiation-related cancer risk is 3 to 4 times higher than for adults; and female infants are twice as susceptible as male infants….

      On May 12, the Japan Medical Association, in the wake of the Kosako resignation, criticized government indifference to the exposure of Fukushima children to radiation….

      The Mainichi also reports protests from various corners.

      Indeed, coverage has spread to corners of the mass media hardly known for political critique.  Journalist Hirokawa Ryuichi, known for his coverage of the plight of Palestinian children, Unit 731, and Chernobyl, takes on the 20mSv issue in the May 26 issue of Josei Seven (Women’s Seven), a weekly known mostly for paparazzi-style star stalking, but now including more political criticism as mothers nationwide consider the implications of the government’s 20mSv for children decision.

      Hirokawa argues that while the Soviet government may have been irresponsible in its initial approach to the Chernobyl radiation release, it undertook a massive effort to evacuate children from Kiev, 120 kilometers away from the crisis zone, between May and September 1986. Fukushima City is just over 50 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi.  At the currently approved 20mSv, Hirokawa points out, Japanese children could be exposed to four times the radiation of children in Ukraine in 1986.  He writes, “… an hourly rate of 3.8 microsieverts is a number not all that different from readings at the dead ruins of Pripyat.  I don’t want to imagine Japanese children running and playing in this ruined shell of a city.”  Pripyat, built originally to house Chernobyl workers, is the abandoned city at the heart of Ukraine’s “Zone of Alienation.” 

      While comparisons between Chernobyl and Fukushima abound, there are many who point to the contrasts. In the latest issue of the Journal of Radiological Protection, radiation, Professor Richard Wakeford of the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute points out flaws in the International Nuclear Event Scale, "Since Level 7 is the highest rating on INES there can be no distinction between the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents, leading many to proclaim the Fukushima accident as 'another Chernobyl', which it is not….” He asserts that as of early April, Fukushima had released but one tenth of the amount of radiation expelled in the Chernobyl disaster and praises Japan’s official response,

      “Given the difficult background circumstances pertaining in Fukushima Prefecture as problems mounted at the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPS, the organisational abilities of the Japanese authorities in dealing with the evacuation, monitoring and protection of the public has to be admired. In particular, the heroic efforts of the emergency workers, battling under conditions that were often atrocious, should not pass without respect and praise. I for one bow to their courage.”

      We have, likewise, noted important differences in the handling of the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Yet it is important to note that Wakeford’s praise ignores the most important revelations of TEPCO’s and the Japanese governments cover-ups and recklessness, as in its decisions to expose Fukushima children to 20 mSv of radiation on a long-term basis.

      As the nature of the Fukushima crisis relative to Chernobyl continues to be contested, the important issue of radiation exposure of Fukushima school children remains at the center of public debate. To date, the Japanese government has failed to respond effectively to critics of policies that pose long-term risks to the nation’s children.


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